The National Park Service, which oversees the park, calls it Meridian Hill Park. News outlets, including The Washington Post, have used both names at different times. In 2006, the D.C. Department of Transportation erected royal blue signs by the park that employ a run-on version of the name “Meridian Hill Malcolm X Park” because “the community requested the sign include both names on the panel agency”, says Terry Owens, agency spokesman. The evolution of the name is a bracing reminder of how different D.C.’s history and present has been for various groups of Washingtonians.
In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson ordered a small obelisk placed a mile and a half north of the White House to serve as a longitudinal meridian for the new capital city. An owner who acquired the land after the War of 1812 was the first to call it Meridian Hill. Meridian Hill Park officially opened in 1936. By the 1960s, it had become a gathering place for black activists. “One of the things that the activists that renamed the park wanted to ensure was that that area was black people’s land”, says George Derek Musgrove, co-author of “Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital”. A 1970 congressional measure to rename the park for Malcolm X failed, but the name stuck. Starting in the early aughts, an influx of affluent millennials and empty nesters to the neighborhood drove up home prices, displacing many longtime black middle-class and working-class residents. Old-timers began to notice that with the population shift came an increase in the use of Meridian Hill Park. “People who have shown up in the past 15 years are changing the lexicon of the city” says Blair Ruble, local historian and author of “Washington’s U Street: A Biography.”
An unscientific 2014 poll on the neighborhood blog Popville, which describes its readership as “affluent young professionals,” seemed to back up those observations. Seventy-one percent of the 2,000 respondents called it Meridian Hill, 15 percent referred to it as Malcolm X, and 13 percent favored the synthesized Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park. D.C. Council member Brianne Nadeau, who used to live just south of the park and represents the neighborhoods around it, refers to it both ways and even as “Meridian Hill-slash-Malcolm X”; as her chief of staff Tania Jackson explains, Nadeau is “aware that people identify with both versions of the name for different reasons.” So is it Meridian Hill or Malcolm X Park? Well, I guess it just depends on who you ask.